The United Kingdom general election is just three months away. As such, the people of Britain are being readied now to carry out the act that represents the totality of their participation in the political process. A marked intensification of the usual Huxleyan hypnopaedia has convinced us that immigration, rather than the economic system, is the fount of all our problems.
Thus the apparently insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has triumphed in two recent by-elections and looks primed to prevail in many more constituencies this May. The larger parties too parade the same red herring of immigration. As the electoral ‘debate’ slithers rightwards, then, wrapping itself in pythonic fashion around migrants—and their detractors—it is worth repeating briefly the truisms upon which ‘our’ ‘democracy’ is built.
Twice a decade, two-thirds of the British electorate arrive at the polls to be confronted by a rather limited choice: Labour, or the Tories? While it is true enough that candidates from other parties receive votes in their hundreds of thousands, only the two foregoing titans are large enough to form or lead a government. Both are remarkably, demonstrably similar, though Tory genuflection to neoliberalism is a smidgen deeper—and necessarily so, given that corporate finance sees to the health of Conservative coffers.
At any rate, every five years, after vapid and costly public relations campaigns, one or the other of the above is fired into Whitehall by the trebuchet of public opinion; that is, by the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate. Once there, and engaged in the business of government, both parties reliably ensure that nothing much changes, while making sure to tussle—or be seen to tussle—with the opposition on issues of at best subsidiary importance. There are reasons for all this.
These days, the composition of both the Labour and Conservative parties is broadly identical. The men and women whose disembodied names we see upon the ballots are able to stand for Parliament because they have been selected to do so. The selection process has three salient features. Firstly, in the course of it, all prospective candidates are thoroughly vetted by their respective parties. Applicants whose views do not accord with those that undergird their parties are quickly weeded out. Secondly, the process is very expensive. Anybody who cannot easily absorb a loss of approximately £35,000—132% of the average annual salary—is effectively barred from standing. (It is of course irrelevant that any such loss will be recouped many times following election, by way of both a distending salary, and thousands of pounds in undeserved expenses.) Thirdly, the selection process unpreventably attracts the sort of glib and shameless little squirt who craves the status and the power—such as it is—that accompanies so-called public office.
Thus the hilariously named House of Commons is stuffed with self-important men (and some women) who have been nursed at the same schools and the same universities, who belong predominantly to the same class, and who, if they are not career politicians, have come to Westminster from jobs in law, business, finance and the media. In the course of their lifetimes, then, these sporozoan blobs have fully internalised conventional wisdom on political and economic matters. Thus when they enter Parliament, they do so ready to serve again, in a different guise, the interests of capital.
But it is easy to overstate, as the corporate media always does, the influence of politicians. It is easy to go no farther than the Palace of Westminster when attacking the status quo—to confuse politics with policy. It is easy, in other words, to miss the forest for the trees.
After all, we can emphasise the fact that both the Cabinet and its counterpart in opposition are filled with millionaires. We can bring attention to the rather frightful fact that, before he became Gordon Brown’s most powerful adviser, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls learned his economics from Larry Summers at Harvard. We could even mention, in light of the media-abetted upsurge in support for UKIP, that the straight-talking, pint-quaffing tribunus plebis Nigel Farage happened to make his fortune on the London Metal Exchange, having attended the very same public school as Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
But when they are divorced from their wider context, facts like these, which concentrate on individuals and institutions rather than the system as a whole, stand bereft of most of their critical power. Alone, they can give birth only to vague and superficial critiques. What we ought to realise is that all such facts share in common a sordid lineage, the ultimate forebear of which is, of course, the global capitalist economy.
States are vehicles of power. In a capitalist economy—one which prioritises, fetishises and revolves ad infinitum in circular orbit around the principle of accumulation—political and institutional power is necessarily that of its economic elites. After all, it is they who are, and have for centuries been, the creditors and private proprietors, the landlords and the industrialists, and it is they who nowadays enlarge their monstrous loots by way of activity in the casino-like financial markets, at a great cost to everybody else.
They are able to do all this from behind the company, an abstraction reified by the state, invested with all the benefits of legal personhood and having as its underlying purpose the accumulation of capital. This legally entrenched raison d’être results ultimately and of necessity in the exploitation and alienation of those who must sell their labour in order to live, and moreover in the comprehensive devastation of our environment. It entails the marketisation and commodification of everything; poisons all that we do with the lust for individual material gain; and, as Smedley Butler and Marcuse and many others have testified, is finally and most gruesomely realised in our killing fields abroad. It ensures, then, that the phrase ‘corporate greed’, a pet lament of liberals, is nothing more than a banal tautology.
At any rate, the basic mechanics of capitalism are not especially difficult to comprehend, and can be summarised with a brief look to history. In the fevered throes of competition—essentially the vicious scramble for maximum accumulation—some companies collapse while others are subsumed by larger rivals. Capital thus becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations over time. Such concentration is simply an immutable law of the subsisting mode of production and accounts in large part for the formation of monopolies and oligopolies.
Eventually, and often via neocolonial penetration of already blood-drenched lands, the monopolists and oligopolists ascend to such dominant positions in the local and global markets that they can no longer invest productively in their own operations. Labour, having been outsourced to developing countries, can hardly become any cheaper. Such outsourcing leaves people poorer and so the demand for commodities falls.
It is at this point that financialisation, and its infernal offspring speculation, take root. Surplus is poured into fictitious capital assets—that is to say, financial instruments like stocks and bonds (and, at an even further remove, derivatives)—which are conjured out of thin air and traded across the world, with the effect that scarcely believable profits accrue to those who already held a disproportionate amount of their society’s wealth.
When such monumental swindling—propelled always by the objective of accumulation—runs aground, when the bubbles burst, it is the mass of ordinary people who suffer. With one hand, a fist of steel, the government, dancing to the dictates of central banks, imposes upon its worker-consumers a punishing programme of austerity. With the other, extended in fealty, it presents to financial institutions such measures as bailouts and quantitative easing, to allow them to resume their lucrative and quite frankly epic hocus-pocus at the expense of those that it, the government, is charged in theory with serving.
But crucially, it would be naïve in the extreme to expect anything else from the state as a whole. It is important to remember that in England, as in many other countries, Parliament, the centrepiece of state, properly emerged in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries as little more than the ‘instrument of landed capitalists’ (Zagorin). Indeed, in eighteenth-century England, it was Parliament which facilitated and oversaw the wholesale enclosure of commons, and which therefore sealed the decimation of the peasantry in order to augment the estates and the power of those capitalists, who, of course, to a considerable extent constituted Parliament, and whose influence therein only grew during the Victorian era. It is well to remember that, owing to extremely limited suffrage, and such quirks as ‘rotten’ and ‘pocket’ boroughs, Parliament in those days was no more than a self-selecting assembly of very wealthy propertied men.
And the diabolic alliance between—or oneness of—capitalists and the state, now embedded in a fully ‘globalised’ capitalist economy, has continued to define British society. Its manifestations today and in recent history are both toxic and legion: privatisation, deregulation (especially of financial markets), deunionisation, public subsidies for private ‘enterprise’, flaccid taxation policies, corporate lobbying and so on. But it must be understood that such developments are nothing short of inevitable in a system guided ultimately by the principle of capital accumulation and controlled by inherently undemocratic organisations which are concerned, in the final analysis, with profit margins and market shares alone.
To focus solely on the state, then, or on its puny agents, when mounting a ‘serious’ critique of the status quo, is—at best—to demonstrate a grave susceptibility to the techniques of propaganda employed by those agents, by the modern-day robber barons and above all by the large companies whose business lies in peddling news which conforms to the dominant ideology (i.e. the ruling ideas, which, as Marx pointed out, not only fail to scrutinise the ‘dominant material relationships’ of capitalist society, but—whether explicitly or otherwise—justify, glorify and reinforce them). Thus to attack immigrants and immigrants alone, or indeed the embattled and ever-shrinking welfare system, is to signal absolute capitulation to such techniques.
So, as the general election approaches, what is to be done? A Miliband had the perspicacity once to call for a ‘wholesale transformation of capitalist society in socialist directions’. He insisted upon the ‘effective dissolution of the structures of power of capitalist society and their replacement by a fundamentally different social order, based upon the social ownership and control of the main means of economic activity, and governed by principles of co-operation, civic freedom, egalitarianism, and democratic arrangements far superior to the narrowly class-bound arrangements of capitalist democracy.’
Of course, this piece of reasonably good judgement was uttered not by Ed, or his brother David, but by their father Ralph. Miliband the elder understood that the Labour Party had always accepted as given the capitalist organisation of society. He recognised that labourism sought to reform rather than transcend the capitalist framework, to repair (and so more firmly entrench) rather than fracture the relations of servitude which define it.
Nowadays, the Green Party is more labourist than Labour. Socialism does not even enter into the picture. Nevertheless, the corporate media has for some time now been in the habit of branding Ed Miliband ‘Red Ed’, presumably so as to project the impression of ours as a vigorous democracy in which there rages a genuine and fateful clash of ideas. But such a notion is obviously absurd. The Labour Party has affirmed and reaffirmed its commitment to austerity, and therefore to the wider neoliberal agenda. It stands behind the Conservatives on matters of foreign policy. It will never offer an alternative to the subsisting mode of production, and nor, indeed, will the Greens. The question of when such an alternative can emerge is unanswerable at present, but one hopes that our patience with this charade of democracy will soon splinter and reconstitute itself as an ironclad desire for the real thing.